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Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 26)

The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957

The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957

Frank Dik├Âtter

2013


Not an easy read, but a compelling overview of the Chinese revolution and the ways in which the Communists seized power. It focuses almost entirely on the Chinese perspective where it might have been interesting to have some foreign perspectives as well; in a similar vein, a more in-depth coverage of the impact of the Korean war might have made the relationship with the outside world more clear. Or perhaps that's partially the point: the revolution cut China off from the world to the extent that there was no relationship of any great degree.

What comes across most strongly is the wasted lives, the ways in which the Communist party was willing to ignore (if not destroy) the talents of its people for reasons of pure ideology -- something the Cambodians were to do, altogether more violently, a few decades later. It's a tribute to the resilience of the Chinese people that the country has managed to survive the experience and re-engage with the world again, but the scars are sure to linger for many years to come.

4/5. Finished 09 December 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction

The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction

Nate Silver

2012


An essential book for anyone concerned with "big data" or any aspect of science of forecasting. Silver casts an experienced (and somewhat jaundiced) eye over a range of commonly-encountered forecasts, including politics (his own main area), poker, finance, and climate change. In each area he manages both to convince that forecasts can be made to good effect -- and to demolish many of the current practices one finds in these areas. On the way he discusses Bayesian statistics, the psychology of a good forecaster (be a "fox," not a "hedgehog"), how to spot bias, and gives some critical advice that would be of useful to anyone looking to apply such techniques. Should be required reading for all science PhD students.

5/5. Finished 02 December 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Catastrophe: Europe Goes To War 1914

Catastrophe: Europe Goes To War 1914

Max Hastings

2013


Exactly the sort of balanced and readable account one would expect from Max Hastings, this book covers the first four months of the war on the basis that this period established the themes that remained essentially unchanged until the breakdown of 1918.

Hastings makes the familiar argument that the Western Front was the key to the whole war, with the other fronts being sideshows. But he makes the less familiar (to me anyway) argument that the deadlock was largely inevitable -- the result of macro-economic forces and the evolution of defensive military hardware -- rather than due in any significant way to failures in generalship on either side. This isn't to excuse the poor leadership, nor to minimise the consequences of the stubbornness and lack of imagination or empathy that went with it, but simply to say that the war had to be fought largely as it was, with few viable alternatives.

It's great to see Hastings acknowledge his debt to Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, which to my mind remains the greatest summary of this period despite its low standing amongst professional historians. This book runs it a close second, though.

4/5. Finished 21 November 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Death of a Naturalist

Death of a Naturalist

Seamus Heaney

1966



I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.


Heaney's first volume of poems all relate to his growing-up in the country. Lots of the allusions are to an Ireland that still exists, untouched by the progress, boom, and bust of recent years, recognisably "country".

The most famous poem in this volume is "Mid-term break", describing Heaney's returning home to the funeral of his younger brother, once again perfectly recognisable as an Irish country removal and wake in a way that wouldn't be familiar elsewhere. Although I must say that my own favourite is "Storm on the Island" that describes how a storms comes over an empty West-of-Ireland landscape:


We just sit tight while wind dives
And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo,
We are bombarded by the empty air.
Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.


Sentiments I recognise in myself at every storm I sit out.


5/5. Finished 16 November 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Strange Landscape: Journey Through the Middle Ages

Strange Landscape: Journey Through the Middle Ages

Christopher Frayling

1995


A fascinating dive into the structure of the Middle Ages, a period often regarded as a uniformly dark cipher. Fraying focuses on four topics: the origins of Gothic architecture; the evolution of the idea of heresy; the conflict between church and reason; and the cosmology of Dante's The Divine Comedy. If these choices seem eclectic, they're both carefully chosen and intricately related to the complete story of the period.

Most fascinating for me was the description of the arguments between Peter Abelard, the man who almost singlehandedly put the University of Paris on the map, and St Bernard of Clairvaux, about the place of reason and inspiration in religion. They were both what we would now regard as religious men, but their radically different views on religion's place and relationship to thought cut the the heart of many modern debates as well. Similarly, the chapter on Dante simplifies and structures what can otherwise be a difficult book to access.

The theme that runs through the book is the similarities that appear between the Middle Ages and the modern world, best captured by Umberto Eco in saying that we have never really left Middle Ages behind. Certainly a book like this makes much more clear the intellectual debt we still owe to the period, as well as how many of the questions raised then remain live even now.

4/5. Finished 01 November 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)